Native American cartoonist Ricardo Caté knows how to open doors.
After the Tin-Nee-Ann Trading Co. in Santa Fe was closed temporarily for renovations a few years ago, he stopped by with a picture of the store. When the shop reopened, the owners decided to feature Caté’s work in the gallery.
It’s not the first time that Caté has knocked on a door and created opportunity for himself. In 2007, his persistence paid off at The Santa Fe New Mexican, which runs his daily cartoon strip.
In his strip, whose simplicity echoes Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” cartoons, Caté’s characters comment on such current affairs as the December opening of the Chipotle chain in a city filled with great burrito spots.
But there is a recurring interchange between a Native man in headdress who one imagines to be the artist himself and a character resembling General George Armstrong Custer.
Journal North checked in with Caté recently about the impact of the coronavirus on Santo Domingo Pueblo, where he lives and recently repainted a famous trading post. We also asked him about the status of an indiegogo funding campaign to make a documentary about his life.
Caté responded to questions mostly via email when he wasn’t working in the fields on the reservation between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Q: If I understand correctly, you are the only Native American in the U.S. with a comic strip in a newspaper. Is that correct? How did that come about?
A: As far as I know, I’m the only Native cartoonist who has a comic printed in a mainstream daily newspaper. I’m not sure how that came about. Just good timing, I guess.
Q: I thought you said during a graduation speech you gave at the Santa Fe Indian School a few years ago that persistence played a part in you getting the comic strip at The Santa Fe New Mexican.
A: Everyone knows that story.
Q: Are you sure? Let’s hear the story again.
A: OK. My mom sells jewelry on the portal (of the Palace of the Governors on the Santa Fe Plaza). She wasn’t feeling well, so she asked me to hang around for a little while.
I had some time to kill, so I went over to The New Mexican. I thought maybe I could get writing work there as a sportswriter. I had just graduated from Fort Lewis College in Durango. The year was 2007.
Rob Dean was the editor then. The person who came out to talk to me was (office manager) Bernadette Garcia. She told me there was no chance of writing for the paper.
Then I remembered that I had some drawings in my bag and I asked her if I could show them to her.
She said all the comics came in on a full-color page printed by a syndicate in Florida. She said if I wanted to have a comic strip in The New Mexican, I needed to contact the syndicate.
I told her, “I’m standing right here. Why can’t I show you my drawings?”
This went on for about 10 or 15 minutes. Finally, she said, “Let me see them.”
After she looked at my drawings, she started laughing. Other people came out, like Inez (Russell Gomez, now the editorial editor of The New Mexican). Everyone started laughing.
Bernadette said, “Well, I guess we’ve got to run them in the paper.”
My comic strip, “Without Reservations,” began appearing in The New Mexican in October 2007.
Q: What’s your background?
A: I drew comics as a kid. I started around age 10. My only audience was my best friend David, who also drew comics, so we would exchange comics at recess or lunch. I then drew for my high school paper, but hardly drew after that. In 2003, I doodled a few cartoons at an art show and made money from those drawings. It was then I realized I could make a career out of this.
Q: In addition to having a comic strip, you sell your art in galleries, right?
A: I have displayed my cartoons at the Pueblo Cultural Center and presently at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture. I also sell my paintings at various shops in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
Q: In your mind, do you see a distinction between being an artist in mass media, i.e., newspapers, and being a fine artist?
A: The only distinction I see between drawing for mass media and painting for galleries and such is that I have a deadline at the paper that must be met each week. I have fun doing both.
Q: On the reservation where you live, you and your family repainted a trading post. When do you think that might re-open? Or is it really an art installation?
A: I was asked to paint the Santo Domingo Trading Post four years ago after it had been rebuilt after a fire had all but destroyed it in February 2001. It took me a couple of months to complete the whole facade. I was hoping it would open for business soon after, but that has yet to happen. I have no idea when it will.
Q: Have you ever encountered any hostility on the reservation about your fame?
A: My cartoon has been well received by other tribal members and I get a lot of encouragement from them.
Q: Tell me about the indiegogo campaign to make a documentary about you?
The idea for the documentary came after Kaela Waldstein was sent to shoot a short interview of my work with “A Dose of Reality,” which is trying to address the opioid crisis on reservations. We figured since she had a lot of footage from the interview, we could work on a documentary.
Q: What does the cancellation of Indian Market in Santa Fe this summer due to the coronavirus mean to you and to the other members of the Santo Domingo Pueblo?
A: I am not affiliated with SWAIA (Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, which runs the market) nor the Indian Market.
Although the Indian jewelry business has come to almost a complete stop, the artists in my village continue to work on their wares and hope to sell again when all this is over.